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The Value of the Knowledge Attained Through a Liberal Arts Education

Liberal Arts education represents a unique sphere of knowledge involving the best achievements of painting and literature, music, and philosophy. A liberal arts setting includes a college or a university: a given campus, administration, faculty, students, curriculum, written and unwritten rules of conduct which apply in every quarter of the campus, exams, parties, political and academic events. In this setting moral knowledge plays a crucial role as it determines the main behavior patterns and communication of people (Baird 11). For if virtue is knowledge, abstract, universal knowledge, then certainly educators can teach it the way they can teach mathematics in the classroom. The value of moral knowledge in a Liberal Arts education is to direct, guide and discipline individuals and help them to acquire the main ethical and moral skills and knowledge.

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People constantly make moral decisions in the course of their daily lives; these decisions are made based on established and recognized moral principles. The knowledge of the moral values and the method which educators employ to justify the validity of these values and of how people should live up to them makes up what people usually call moral knowledge or moral language (Cardinal et al , p. 41). Thus when educators talk of moral education they understand the practice or method so they employ in teaching someone how to become moral (how to act morally) (Cardinal et al, p. 43). This sort of knowledge is by no means theoretical; it does not consist in putting in the mind of the child a heap of ideas about moral values, moral rules, moral theories, or the significance of morality in human life which he can remember or on which he can give a lecture or write an essay. This sort of knowledge is knowledge by and from praxis; it is a kind of practical wisdom (Berube, p. 87). A moral person knows how to act morally; for example, how to act justly or generously in concrete human situations, in situations which are unique or which the individual faces for the first time in his life. In such situations in which a person asks “What ought I to do?” she always confronts a problem, and to solve the problem she needs to make a decision on which she can act. The dynamics involved in making a decision are rather complex and in some cases bewildering (Baird, p. 14).

A necessary condition for moral growth is the cultivation of moral habits. By “moral habit” means the moral quality or moral virtue (Berube, p. 81). A moral person exemplifies in action the basic stock of moral qualities which are cherished and practiced in society: courage, honesty, respect for life, friendship, or justice (Baird 31). The unity of these and similar qualities, sometimes called “traits,” in one’s self constitute moral character. That is, by performing the same sort of act in similar situations again and again a disposition to perform this type of activity is formed so that if a similar situation that requires courageous action arises in the future the child will feel inclined to act accordingly (Cardinal et al , p. 47).

The logic of learning how to acquire a moral habit is similar to the logic of learning how to read. A critic may wonder whether the habit is the best way to cultivate moral qualities in the soul of the young child. If educators view repetition as the essence of habit then educators have to concede that it is not the high road to virtue. But if educators view it as an orientation, as a readiness to respond to problems and situations in definite ways, moreover, if they stress doing as the medium in which one acquires this tendency, then they should acknowledge that in the cultivation of moral character they should underscore the idea of practice (Baird 14). This idea refers to the multitude of experiences that a child has in daily life in the midst of family and social relationships. These experiences do not simply happen. A caring family would provide moral guidance to its children. It would promote those types of action most conducive to acquiring moral qualities and consequently to moral character; for “moral character,” as Dewey said, is “the interpenetration of moral habits” (cited Baird 44). An action which a child performs is never an isolated event but organically interrelated to the life of the family as a whole; to its values, traditions, the way the parents behave in relation to each other, and to how the family organizes its daily activities. This is why educators should view an experience as a highly complex and value-laden concept whose impact upon the child cannot be reduced merely to repetition (Cardinal et al, p. 48).

The value of moral knowledge in a Liberal Arts education is to learn the logical structure of a type of situation, the type which arouses fear and which consists of certain components and creates certain expectations (Baird, p. 43). A student has also developed a skill in distinguishing the sort of object which can be the source of justifiable fear and also how to analyze such situations. He has acquired skills in how to make a particular decision based on this general knowledge. The point of moral education is not to impart to the young moral decisions but to assist them in mastering general principles (Cardinal et al 51). People should accordingly hold that a moral habit is the internalization of a moral rule in the soul of the child. It is not my purpose here to consider the question of what principles to cultivate or whether such principles are or can be universal or whether they can all be taught in the same way. The moral knowledge the child acquires is not empty, because a habit is the principle of a definite mode of action: just, generous, or loving action. These and similar modes of action constitute the total of the moral life of a given society (Baird, p. 76).

The focus in the Liberal Arts education is on the cultivation of skill, in moral reasoning, in how to think through a problem, and in how to find a solution to the problem. If the lesson were successful (Baird 54), A student would grow in paying attention to the relevant facts of his problems and in seeing the relationships (assumptions, causes, consequences) which hold between them (Berube, p. 83). It also implies knowledge of the conditions under which the moral act will take place. Success in enhancing the power of “attending” (seeing, feeling, thinking) places, the student at the edge of creative action, at that limit where he is ready to stand on his own as a person, for these skills are basic equipment he needs to grow in autonomy. The emphasis in this sort of study is not merely on acquiring knowledge but mainly on (1) understanding the significance of this knowledge and (2) discovering the purpose or meaning of one’s life. This is why when reviewing the extant literature on the aims of liberal arts education educators generally find these aims directed at the cultivation of the aesthetic, social, religious, political, intellectual, and material dimensions of human nature (Berube 87). The unusual technological advance and sophistication in fields like medicine, law, engineering, government, computer engineering, education, environmental control, business, and warfare during the past three decades has posed a number of moral problems and questions to which people have no precedent or ready answers (Baird 83). Yet these problems affect our individual lives directly and seriously. Educators cannot simply ignore them. Allegiance to this version of moral equality is not a product of mere sentiment or subjective preference. It is eminently defensible in light of the realities of the moral life, but to give full articulation to this point of view or to supplement it with related considerations is beyond the scope of this discussion. As indicated above, my concern is with the morally educative effects that people might reasonably hope for in liberal education (Cardinal et al , p. 88).

In sum, the acquisition of knowledge in various of the fields that make up the curriculum, some awareness of and appreciation for the arts, significant exposure to the normative visions of life created by some of the greatest minds in history. Educators look to the cultivation of the specific interests and capacities called for in the various disciplines, in the hope that students will continue to mine the varied riches of our traditions. Educators also demand of students the recognition and befriending of further qualities of mind: a belief in honest inquiry and criticism as the preferred methods of acquiring and evaluating knowledge, and a recognition of the value of communicating and sharing the results of the inquiry. Educators would hope as well to find in liberally educated individuals the replacement of dogmatism and complacency with recognition of uncertainty and ignorance, and a willingness, if not eagerness, to be informed and to revise beliefs as knowledge is modified and grows. Educators are happy neither with students who are stuck on foregone conclusions nor with those who are gullible. Educators hope they will acknowledge human fallibility (even their own) while recognizing that they should not accept ideas uncritically. In recognizing their fallibility, they might also gain increased tolerance and even respect for the judgments of others; they might be more willing to submit alternative ideas to whatever inquiries and evidence appropriate rather than reject uncongenial views out of hand. Assuredly, the best of us possess these virtues only in part, but people believe in them, and educators believe that students, as well as ourselves, can make some measure of progress in achieving them.

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Works Cited

  1. Baird, D. Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. University of California Press; 1 edition, 2004.
  2. Berube, M. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education. W. W. Norton, 2006.
  3. Cardinal, D., Jones, G., Harward, J. Epistemology: The Theory of Knowledge (Philosophy in Focus). Hodder Murray, 2004.

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